RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Climate change is a danger to this country. That is the official position of the U.S. federal government. But according to leaked documents, the White House could be moving to challenge that conclusion. The man who appears to be behind this is William Happer. He's a scientist who recently joined the staff of President Trump's National Security Council. NPR's Dan Charles has more.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: William Happer was born in India when it was a British colony - the son of a Scottish military officer and an American missionary doctor. They later moved to North Carolina. And Happer became a physicist at Columbia University and then Princeton.
STEVEN KOONIN: He is a damn good scientist.
CHARLES: This is Steven Koonin, a professor at New York University. He's known Happer for 30 years.
KOONIN: There are two really significant contributions associated with him.
CHARLES: One made it possible to capture much better images of people's lungs. Another one allows astronomers to see the stars more clearly. So a respected scientist - also a contrarian and prone to arguments with environmental scientists. In 1993, for instance, then Vice President Al Gore was talking a lot about chemicals eating away at ozone in the stratosphere, letting in dangerous ultraviolet radiation. Happer had a top job at the Department of Energy at the time, running scientific research. He went over to the White House and said, there's no evidence the ozone hole's hurting anybody. He lost his job over it. Koonin thinks his friend, Will Happer, was just demanding better evidence.
KOONIN: I think that sensitized him to the squishiness, if you like, of a lot of the environmental science.
CHARLES: But other colleagues say it's more like a visceral distrust of that science. In recent years, Happer's been campaigning against the idea that rising carbon dioxide levels are a danger. Here he's giving a speech to the Heartland Institute.
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WILLIAM HAPPER: When I got into this area and started learning about it, I learned that I was - when I looked at CO2, I should assume that it caused harmful warming, extreme weather, Noah's flood. You know, I remember thinking, are they mad?
CHARLES: Carbon dioxide's actually good for the planet, Happer says. It's like fertilizer. It makes our crops more productive.
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HAPPER: We've got to push back vigorously on the demonization of fossil fuels. They're not demons at all. They're enormous servants to us.
CHARLES: Some of Happer's colleagues back at Princeton are reluctant to talk about it. It's like discussing a relationship that got messy. Here's Michael Bender, emeritus professor of geoscience - a climate researcher.
MICHAEL BENDER: I mean, I liked him. We would - we went out for coffee after our committee meetings a couple of times.
CHARLES: Bender wouldn't do it now, though, partly because of the scientific dispute. Bender says Happer's misreading the evidence. But it's also Happer's style. He's called climate science a cult, accused other scientists of whipping up climate fears to boost their own careers. Most offensive for Bender, Happer said people are demonizing carbon dioxide the way Nazis demonized Jews.
BENDER: You know, there came a point where he attacked my colleague's integrity. And I just felt like I couldn't have a cordial relationship with him anymore after that.
CHARLES: Happer wasn't authorized to talk to us for this story. He's in the White House now - 79 years old, possibly running a new review of climate science. And Robert Socolow, another Princeton colleague, has conflicted feelings about it.
ROBERT SOCOLOW: Everybody has areas of irrationality. I think the environment, in general, and climate change, in particular, is an area of Will's irrationality. But nonetheless, I think he can accomplish something.
CHARLES: Socolow is hoping that Happer will now behave less like an argumentative physicist and more like the kind of person who has to prepare for every possibility.
SOCOLOW: The military person doesn't underestimate the enemy. A business person doesn't underestimate the competition.
CHARLES: And Socolow says even if there is uncertainty about our future climate, as Happer says, it's not something we can afford to underestimate. Dan Charles, NPR News.
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